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Many People Hit By Hurricane Florence Are Still Dependent On Charity Relief Groups


All right, let's go to North Carolina now where people are relieved that Hurricane Michael has not hit them as hard as they feared. They're still recovering from Hurricane Florence, which pummeled the state nearly a month ago. Florence displaced thousands from their homes, and many are still dependent on the charity of relief groups to get by. As NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, some volunteers came all the way from Puerto Rico to help out.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Lumberton is one of the cities in North Carolina hardest hit by Hurricane Florence. It's also one of the poorest. And many people here still need help feeding their families. The parking lot behind the East Lumberton Baptist Church is now occupied by a huge trailer - a mobile kitchen capable of cooking 1,500 hot meals. This day, anyone who comes by gets a meal packaged to go. The kitchen comes from Operation Blessing, a Christian relief organization from Virginia.

QUINTON BOYKINS: This trailer has been down to Beaumont, Texas. It's been to Florida a few times. Its been to New Jersey. It's been to New York.

GJELTEN: Quinton Boykins is coordinating the effort.

BOYKINS: Our mission is to be the hands and feet of Jesus. We want to be able to help as many people as possible and be able to just show our love and our care for the community everywhere that we go.

GJELTEN: But this effort has a twist. The Lumberton city manager, knowing his population's needs, reached out to the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Carmen Yulin Cruz, asking whether she could send some people to assist the Operation Blessing crew. Puerto Ricans were hit last year at this time by Hurricane Maria. Mayor Cruz asked for volunteers, and there is a five-person crew from San Juan here today serving food. Jesus Flores, who works for Mayor Cruz, led the group to Lumberton.

JESUS FLORES: The only right thing to do was to say yes.

GJELTEN: Did you have to recruit them?

FLORES: No. When we said we need volunteers, they step in. And we've been here since the 2nd, and we plan to stay till the 17. And if we're needed, we will make the arrangements to be back.

ESTELE DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GJELTEN: Estele Diaz says, "Mayor Cruz reminded us that people from the U.S. mainland had come to Puerto Rico after the hurricane to help. We want to return that help," Diaz says, "with much love."

DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GJELTEN: David Adams is the cook here today.

DAVID ADAMS: Let's see. We made it fajitas - chicken Fajitas with white rice and of course a fruit cup for dessert. The Puerto Rican team helps me with arranging all the menus and everything, and they do a lot of the cooking.

GJELTEN: People here in Lumberton have been nervous all this week, worried that Hurricane Michael would come their way. The county government opened an emergency management center. Stores and government offices are closed today. People were encouraged to stay home. As it turned out, there wasn't much of a storm here today, which is good because this city is still far from normal. Jesus Flores says his delegation of Puerto Rican volunteers knows well how long hurricane recovery can take.

FLORES: We're sympathetic with the people of Florida getting hit by Hurricane Michael. And if they need us there, we will do whatever is possible to go there. We know what it's like.

GJELTEN: The Puerto Rican side of this relief effort goes by the name Pay It Forward. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Lumberton, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.